In August, the Webb County Sheriff's Office hailed a new cross-border training agreement endorsed by the U.S. State Department as a step toward helping Mexican law enforcement agencies beef up their ranks. But six months later, little more than initial planning has taken place.
Webb County officers won’t characterize the state of affairs as a stalemate, but instead as a byproduct of the climate surrounding this year’s Mexican elections and the memories of public corruption in Mexico.
“Just like we do on this side, when we’re looking at the possibility of a new president being elected, things move slower than usual,” Webb County Chief Deputy Federico Garza said.
A memorandum of understanding signed last summer paved the way for Mexican law enforcement officers from the state of Tamaulipas — which sits on the other side of the Rio Grande from Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley — to partner with the Webb County Sheriff’s Department and learn to train and recruit legitimate law enforcement officers. It was touted as a key step in the multiyear aid effort known as the Mérida Initiative, a $1.5 billion aid package signed by then-President George W. Bush in 2008 to help Mexico, Central America and Haiti combat organized crime. The South Texas program will be the first of its kind on the border.
The training component signaled the start of Mérida’s next phase following a multiyear focus on supplying Mexican authorities with modern technology and other equipment. To date, the U.S. has provided about $900 million worth of equipment and training to Mexico, according to the U.S. embassy in Mexico City.
The State Department did not return calls seeking comment on the Webb County program, but Garza said the delay is expected, adding that the precarious situation in the Mexican state makes acting prudently a common-sense strategy.
“The [Mexican] military is in control, so it’s not like saying ‘Let’s go grab this police department and train them,’” he said. “We are going to need to start from scratch, to screen people and find the right candidates. There are complicated steps that we have to take and have to be in place.”
And though public corruption is commonplace across Mexico, there is likely to be more scrutiny of programs in Tamaulipas due to the recent news that its governor from, 1999 to 2004, Tomás Yarrington, has been linked in court documents to a man charged with money laundering crimes this month. Yarrington, who has not been charged and denies any wrongdoing, has been linked to Antonio Peña Argüelles and Zeta leaders Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano and Miguel Treviño Morales, two of the cartel’s top enforcers. An affidavit alleges that Peña funneled money from the cartel to Yarrington and other Tamaulipas officials.
Garza said that specter of public corruption is forever present, which makes the vetting process for potential Mexican trainers even more challenging.
“It’s not like training over here, where you have a trainer that is TCLEOSE certified,” he said, referring to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education. “You have to have the right mechanisms in place as to charisma, character.”
Garza said there have been offers for his officers to participate in operations already under way, but he said those are less likely alternatives because the training is being conducted in Mexico.
“I’d feel a lot of safer if we trained the trainer on this side,” he said.
To some, the challenges are not a surprise. When the announcement was made that both countries would shift their focus from technology to officer training, Ambassador William Brownfield, the assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, warned that the process would not be easy.
“There will be problems, there will be mistakes, there will be missteps, there will be arguments and confusion as we work our way through this transition,” he said.
Despite the setbacks, Garza said he is in steady communication with the State Department, and he expects to meet with officials there in the coming weeks.
“We might be looking at months before anything happens. But I know it’s a project that everybody wants done on our side and on their side,” he said.
The Future of Mérida
Mexicans will choose between three candidates this year to replace outgoing President Felipe Calderón. Calderón is a member of the Mexico’s National Action Party, which will field the country’s first female presidential candidate in Josefina Vázquez Mota.
Experts don’t believe candidates from the opposition parties — the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s Enrique Peña Nieto, or Andrés Manuel López Obrador, from the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, will make Mérida a point of contention leading up to this summer’s election. They believe the bilateral agreement is likely to continue following the presidential election in July.
“As a general question, I think people on both sides don’t want to do anything that is going to be viewed as controversial, but on the other hand I don’t see any indications that people are backing off,” said Eric Olson, a senior associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
As proof, Olson cited this month’s announcement that the two governments have entered into an agreement where thousands of Mexican investigators and prosecutors will be trained with U.S. assistance. Announced by Mexico’s Attorney General Marisela Morales Ibañez and U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Earl Anthony Wayne, Proyecto Diamante seeks to train 2,500 Mexican prosecutors and 6,000 investigators in “core competencies” over a one-year period, according to a news release issued by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City this month.
“Proyecto Diamante represents Attorney General Morales’ commitment to the transition from an inquisitorial justice system to a more accusatorial justice system,” Wayne said.
The prosecutors will be trained in Mexico City, and will return to their local jurisdictions where they will replicate what they have learned in order to establish a “sustainable institutional framework for future PGR training,” the statement from the embassy stated.